Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Temperature And Trust

A Vermont rule of thumb is that locals won't speak to you for a year. They want to see if you are going to stick around. Growing up in the cold parts of the United States, I'm comfortable with taciturn culture. What I've learned is that trust travels better north of the 40th parallel. Don't confuse silence with insularity.

Environmental determinism, which made a comeback thanks to Jared Diamond, is still taboo. The theory is that human geography varies with climate. That's not all that controversial. However, the application of the theory is married to state building in the late 19th century and the age of imperial conquests. In Max Weber's famous book, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism", Northern Europeans seem destined to succeed. Likewise, the feckless peoples of the tropics could never compete with the cold climate nations. Europe's global dominance was natural.

Weber makes a finer distinction, dividing Europe into North and South. This geographical convention lends itself to what Diamond terms "natural experiments". Robert Putnam's study of democracy in Italy ("Making Democracy Work") is a great example. Putnam falls back on environmental determinism that doesn't sit well with critics:

Italian northerners stereotype that Italy, from Rome south, is really part of Africa, and hence, still underdeveloped. Conceivably, "compared to the North, the southern regions are no better off today than they were in 1970." (Putnam 184) The explanations promoted by Putnam are, however, not without opposition.

Leonardo Morlino calls much of Putnam's methodology into question. Putnam's concept of civic virtue "seems very Tocquevillean and American-centric" to Morlino; he offers an alternative which could conceive of civicness as characterized by "full acceptance of the principle of legality and the rights and obligations of citizenship." (Morlino 177)

Morlino also has difficulty with some of the historical relationships which are made. Not only is there a problem with the civic traditions of the 1860-1920 and the Fascist period, but there is complaint that Putnam oversimplifies the complexities of Southern feudalism and the communal republicanism of the North.

Marco Maraffi has difficulty with the evidence used in Putnam's study since, "after all, Italy's regions are fairly weak institutions, not comparable with, say, the American states." (Maraffi 1349) Perhaps one could conclude that his American-centric viewpoint has equivocated the two.

The charge is one of cultural imperialism, a common salvo fired on environmental determinism. Regardless, Putnam and Weber make a similar argument. The North has more social capital, so this region is more successful. Does that mean democracy cannot flourish in hotter climates?

After reading Sean Safford's research, I contend that Putnam has it backwards. Southern Italy suffers from too much trust. My proof? The mapping of language density:

The scientists discovered this trend when analyzing the first comprehensive map of the world’s languages, Atlas of the World’s Languages, which was initially published in 1993. Focusing on languages spoken by native peoples when Europeans first arrived, they counted the number of tongues that a line of latitude crossed as it ran east-west across the continent. Their survey spanned 8 ˚N and ended at 70 ˚N, the furthest north an entire latitudinal span was inhabited by humans.

Upon tallying their results, a few things stood out. First, the number of languages peaked at 40 ˚N—the parallel that runs approximately through Philadelphia, Denver, and Reno. Perhaps coincidentally—or perhaps not—this northing is also where the number of mammal species peaks in North America. They also discovered the number of languages per square kilometer rises exponentially as you head south. Further, the number of parallels each language intersected increased as they moved north, a function of both language density and the non-overlapping nature of native peoples’ languages at the time. Finally, the number of languages increased with habitat diversity.

To be tropical is to be parochial because you needn't rely on your neighbor like you would in Nome, Alaska. To live in a northern climate community is a lot like residing in a big city. The social capital requirements are a lot less daunting. Richard Florida calls it "tolerance". I call it gambling with trust. To make it, you have to lean on someone you aren't sure you can trust. That's the magic of cities. You don't have to freeze to succeed. Just cram yourself into the nearest urban tropical ghetto.

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